Demanding a national 'sorry' for past wrongs

Nations that have been built on the backs of immigrants have a difficult time reconciling with their racist pasts. Colour and race-blind entry rules have been around for just over a quarter-century and governments have generally been reluctant to offer apologies for past wrongs. We can only be just in our time, or so the argument goes.

By George Abraham (Canada Connection)

Published: Mon 25 Aug 2008, 10:19 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:13 PM

Canada, though, has been different. In recent years, a variety of immigrant groups have demanded and received apologies for being discriminated against. The Japanese-Canadian and Chinese-Canadian communities have been among the largest ethnic groups to receive not only a collective “sorry” from the government, but also monetary compensation for their harrowing experiences in years past.

A large number of Japanese-Canadians were detained during the Second World War, while immigrants from China were subject to a “head tax” between 1885 and 1923 as a way to dissuade mass immigration. These apologies were generally well received by the current generation of Canadians of Japanese and Chinese heritage, but when something similar was attempted recently for immigrants from India, the gesture appears to have badly backfired.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled to Surrey in the province of British Columbia to deliver his government’s statement of regret to the descendents of 376 Indians who were denied entry to Canada in 1914. The Indians had been passengers on board a ship, the Komagata Maru, which docked at Vancouver harbour in defiance of the “continuous journey” regulation.

This ingenious Canadian regulation, passed in 1908, required would-be immigrants to sail non-stop from their countries of origin. While not appearing to be racially or ethnically motivated, it effectively barred Asian immigration because ships were not equipped to sail such long distances without refuelling and restocking en route. The Komagata Maru remained docked for two months at Vancouver harbour before being turned back and its passengers deported.

An official history of Canadian immigration between 1900 and 1977 written by noted Canadian author Valerie Knowles with support from Citizenship and Immigration Canada reported the quayside impasse in these words: “The steamer met with an unmitigated hostile reception. In fact, for weeks the vessel lay in harbour, its human cargo deprived of food and water by Canadian authorities who sought to weaken their resolve.”

Even before this history was written, Canada readily acknowledged that its past policies have often been xenophobic. For instance, at Pier 21 in Halifax (Canada’s equivalent of America’s Staten Island off New York), a plaque records the nation’s catharsis: “Through these doors have come immigrants and refugees from every part of the world, often bringing with them little more than hope and dreams of a better life for themselves and their children.

“History records that many of these citizens overcame hardships and often outright discrimination and hostility. Yet, they endured, settling the land, building communities and forging links across this vast land.

“We, today's Canadians, owe much to their commitment, hard work and loyalty. The heritage which they bequeathed to us is a unique multicultural nation committed to full and equitable participation of individuals of all origins, bound together by citizenship and the common values of peace, respect for diversity and adherence to the rule of law.”

However, that has not stopped Canadians of various hues harbouring a sense of hurt passed down over the generations. Three years ago, the Winnipeg Free Press characterised these demands as an “avalanche of compensation claims from ethnic groups who believe they are victims of past racial wrongs, discrimination and prejudice.” Among them are Ukrainian-Canadians, Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian émigrés, Quakers and Turks. Newspaper commentary following the apology to Indo-Canadians has alluded to an incident in 1939 when 900 ship-borne Jewish refugees from Germany were denied entry to Canada.

Several spokespersons claiming to be speaking on behalf of the Indo-Canadian community have in recent days denounced the apology as insufficient. Among the most vocal were immigrants from Punjab, who formed the bulk of the passengers aboard the Komagata Maru. Maninder Gill, managing director of Radio India that broadcasts from Surrey, said his station had received hundreds of calls in the days following the prime minister’s apology, none of them supportive. The main grouse appears to be the fact that the apology was not delivered in the House of Commons, like in the case of the Japanese-Canadians and the Chinese-Canadians. “This is not fair to the whole Indo-Canadian community… Now the community feels like it’s 1914 on the boat all over again,” Mr. Gill said.

Commentators have, however, shown little sympathy for the community’s disappointment. A Globe and Mail editorial said the reaction was “an unfortunate display of ingratitude.” The Ottawa Citizen called on Canadians “to acknowledge and learn from mistakes, without focusing on who gets the biggest apology.”

Ordinary citizens were even more caustic in their comments, with a resident of Hawkesbury, Ontario, writing that he was asked to undergo a TB test before being admitted to Canada. “We had to bring X-rays of our lungs, which we obtained at a cost of one guinea each. We demand an apology for this, and reimbursement of our needless expense, with interest.” Another correspondent from Ottawa wrote, “If this incessant need to apologise for every past perceived injustice does not stop, we may soon find ourselves with a new government department and a minister of apologies.”

George Abraham is an Ottawa-based commentator. Reach him at

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